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by Paul Halpern

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Length: 485 pages11 hours

The concept of multiple unperceived dimensions in the universe is one of the hottest topics in contemporary physics. It is essential to current attempts to explain gravity and the underlying structure of the universe. *The Great Beyond* begins with Einstein’s famous quarrel with Heisenberg and Bohr, whose theories of uncertainty threatened the order Einstein believed was essential to the universe, and it was his rejection of uncertainty that drove him to ponder the existence of a fifth dimension. Beginning with this famous disagreement and culminating with an explanation of the newest "brane" approach, author Paul Halpern shows how current debates about the nature of reality began as age-old controversies, and addresses how the possibility of higher dimensions has influenced culture over the past one hundred years.

Publisher: WileyReleased: Apr 21, 2008ISBN: 9780470325322Format: book

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years.

*The formal unity of your theory is astonishing*.

—ALBERT EINSTEIN, letter to Theodor Kaluza, 1919

It is an elegant idea, fashioned in the magnificent lathe of mathematical insight. A radical idea—one that has inspired revelry as well as derision. A persistent idea, durable enough to have outlasted two world wars, as well as the twists and turns of twentieth-century science. And it is a compelling idea: the intriguing notion that nature looks most complete when wrapped up in a garb of extra dimensions.

Though it has at various times been triumphed, mocked, misinterpreted, and ignored, the concept of higher dimensions beyond space and time has become a central feature of modern theoretical discussion. If it is true, it would mean that the world we perceive is only a fraction of a greater invisible reality. Length, width, breadth, and duration would be supplemented by unseen directions, outside the range of our senses.

The scientific community is traditionally a cautious lot. It is resistant to change, unless the arguments cut deep. Attractive mathematical notions, considered in the abstract, do not wield enough of an axe to sever long-held conceptions. To postulate realms beyond the scope of the familiar requires firm physical justification. Theorists’ current interest in extra dimensions has emerged from a sense that taking such a bold step is the best (and perhaps the only) way of unifying all of the forces of nature into a single, cohesive expression.

Science has revealed four fundamental natural forces. The best understood of these is electromagnetism. In the nineteenth century, physicist James Clerk Maxwell successfully modeled its behavior through a simple set of equations. Its properties on the smallest scale were fully explored in the mid-twentieth century through the theory of quantum electrodynamics (QED). One of the most successful theories in the history of science, QED offers the ability to understand a full range of electromagnetic processes, from the collision profiles of hot, charged particles to the magnetic properties of ultra-cool superconductors.

Gravitation, another fundamental force, was famously described by Isaac Newton in the seventeenth century. Then, in the twentieth century, Einstein’s general theory of relativity reinterpreted gravity in terms of the geometry of space and time. Unlike electromagnetism, however, gravitation is little understood on the tiniest scales. No successful theory of gravity incorporates the quantum principles known to guide atomic and subatomic behaviors. The development of a quantum theory of gravity, as successful in its predictive powers as QED, remains an outstanding goal of physics.

The weak interaction was first discerned through the process of radioactive decay, discovered in 1896 by Henri Becquerel. However, it wasn’t identified as a separate force until the mid-twentieth century. Gradually physicists realized that a particular type of nuclear transformation called beta decay, involving the disintegration of neutrons into protons, electrons, and neutrinos, could be mitigated only by means of a new force. This was named the weak interaction (also known as the weak nuclear force) to contrast it with another, more powerful force, called the strong interaction, proposed around the same time.

The strong interaction (also known as the strong nuclear force) emerged as an explanation of why atomic nuclei do not fall apart. Something, physicists realized, must bind the protons and neutrons that form the centers of atoms together. Furthermore, that force must be powerful enough to counteract the force of electrical repulsion that protons feel when they are packed closely together. Like charges repel, unless something else keeps them together. That something is the strong force.

Because the strong force acts on subatomic scales, researchers realized that its effects could only be understood through quantum theory. In the past few decades, scientists have advanced a microscopic description of the strong force, called quantum chromodynamics (QCD), that has met with some success. Calculations in QCD are much more difficult than in QED, limiting scientists’ ability to test all of the ramifications of the theory.

Like stubborn-minded brothers, each of the four natural forces behaves in its own characteristic way. Gravity, as a distortion of the space in which particles move, affects all types of matter. Electromagnetism, in contrast, concerns itself only with charged objects, such as positively charged protons or negatively charged electrons. A neutral body, such as a neutrino or a neutron, can lie like a ghost on a busy highway, directly in the path of an immense electromagnetic field, and never notice anything at all. The strong force is even more finicky. It excludes an entire class of particles, called leptons, and embraces only another group, called hadrons. Leptons include electrons, neutrinos, and more massive particles called muons and tauons. Hadrons are particles, such as protons, neutrons, and many others, that are built up of even smaller constituents, called quarks. Finally, the weak interaction participates in only a limited group of particle transformations—beta decay, for instance.

Moreover, the four forces act with different strengths over distinct ranges of action. Electromagnetism and gravity are effective over very large distances, dropping off in strength at a relatively slow rate compared to the other two forces. That is why a compass can detect Earth’s magnetic poles, thousands of miles away, and why oceans can respond to the gravitational pull of the Moon. The weak and strong interactions, on the other hand, act only over very limited ranges—namely at most on the scale of an atomic nucleus. Two protons, located a quarter inch apart, would feel no measurable strong attraction, only an overwhelming electrical repulsion. Something would have to move them, against their will,

many trillion times closer for them to experience the pull of the strong force. That is why the binding together of protons and neutrons in the process of nuclear fusion takes place only under high-pressure conditions, such as in the heart of the Sun. The immense pressure pushes the particles toward each other, enabling them to feel the strong interaction and stick together.

Once two particles are close enough for the strong interaction’s glue to bind them, they stick together with incredible strength. The strong interaction, at short range, is the mightiest of the forces. It flexes far more muscle than electromagnetism. Within the tight confines of the nucleus, electromagnetism gets sand kicked in its face. That is why the nuclei of the most common atoms, from hydrogen to iron, are so stable.

The least powerful force, by far, is gravity. In a competition at a cosmic gym, it wouldn’t even have the strength to write down its score. Even the weak force, humbled by the strong and electromagnetic forces, could trample gravity with one meager breath. Gravity is more than a quadrillion quadrillion times weaker than any of the other forces. One indication of the strength of electromagnetism compared to gravity, for instance, is that an average-sized bar magnet can easily overpower the whole of Earth’s gravitational attraction and lift a set of paper clips off the ground. The dilemma of why gravity is so much weaker than the other interactions is called the hierarchy problem.

The four forces certainly make odd brothers. Yet most physicists firmly believe that they share common parentage. At the time of their birth, in the fiery first instants of the universe, they all looked the same. Each force had the same range, strength, and ability to interact with particles. Somehow, though, in the changing environment that marked the passage of time, each force went its separate way and acquired its own characteristics. As the universe cooled, these distinct properties froze into place, like the varied shapes of ice crystals forming on a frigid window. Science has already proven the fraternity of two of the four natural forces. In the 1960s, the physicists Steven Weinberg and Abdus Salam (extending the work of Sheldon Glashow) developed a unified explanation for the electromagnetic and weak interactions, known as the electroweak model.

Theorists would love to develop an all-encompassing Theory of Everything

that includes all four natural forces. Yet gravity is so different from the others that physicists have been forced to reach beyond the bounds of observability in efforts to include it. It is possible that the strong and electroweak interactions could live in a house similar to the one Weinberg and Salam built. But gravity residing with its brethren seems to require a colossal new extension, and that extension is a universe with higher dimensions.

The notion of unification through hyperspace (more than three spatial dimensions) has been called the Kaluza-Klein miracle. The name stems from two of its original proposers in the 1910s and 1920s: German mathematician Theodor Kaluza and Swedish physicist Oskar Klein. As originally constructed, their theories applied only to the unification of electromagnetism with gravity; the other two forces were yet unknown. In recent decades, such models, extended in attempts to include the remaining interactions, have been the subject of countless research articles and talks. In the past few years alone, theories involving variations of the Kaluza-Klein approach have received more scientific citations than virtually any other subject in theoretical physics. As prominent theorist Gary Gibbons wrote, No one who has worked through the mathematics of Kaluza and Klein’s construction can ever forget its haunting beauty, and despite its experimental limitations . . . the basic idea has come to dominate all current attempts at unifying the gravitational with the electromagnetic, weak and strong interactions.

**¹ **

Theodor Kaluza came upon the idea of higher dimensional unity while working in the lowly position of privatdozent (unpaid lecturer) at the University of Königsberg. In Germany at the time, in terms of status, privatdozents were to professors as stunt doubles today are to leading Hollywood actors. Privatdozents drew their only income from collecting part of the fees that students paid for each lecture, as well as assisting the professors in other ways around the university. Unlike professors, they had no office or prestige. If a privatdozent was unlucky enough or unpopular enough that few students attended his class, and if he couldn’t supplement his income otherwise, he could literally starve. Under these difficult conditions, nevertheless, Kaluza maintained remarkable creativity.

One day, Kaluza was sitting in his study at home, considering a variation of Einstein’s then-new general theory of relativity. In an arrangement that comforted him, his nine-year-old son sat in another part of the room and watched him while he worked. Kaluza thought it would be interesting to rewrite Einstein’s equations in a hypothetical five-dimensional universe, perhaps in the same way that Ravel found it engaging to rework Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition,

with a full orchestra instead of just a piano. What new features would the additional element reveal? Kaluza wondered.

Suddenly, Kaluza had a revelation. By adding the extra dimension, he found that his reconstituted equations contained not only Einstein’s theory of gravitation, but also Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism. To his son’s surprise, he froze momentarily in place, then stood up abruptly and—in his own eureka shout—began to hum a Mozart aria.

Kaluza was clearly excited. He believed he had found the key to unifying all of nature. He submitted his findings to Einstein, then editor of a prestigious German journal. Einstein was initially delighted by the idea, then had some misgivings. He held up its publication for two years while he sent Kaluza a number of suggestions. Finally, deeming the notion too important for it never to appear, he published it in 1921.

Three years later, Oskar Klein, who was unfamiliar with Kaluza’s paper, independently discovered the same idea. At the time, Klein was working at the University of Michigan, teaching courses in basic physics. As part of a research project, he was examining the motion of particles in fields. A field provides a map of the amount and direction of force per particle at given points throughout space. It indicates where certain forces act stronger or weaker on particles. Klein studied how charged particles moved under the simultaneous influence of electromagnetic and gravitational fields. While performing this investigation, he realized that he could encompass both electromagnetism and gravitation with a single set of five-dimensional equations.

Klein’s son-in-law, physicist Stanley Deser, likes to joke about the reason Klein came to this conclusion: I always say that he invented Kaluza-Klein theory in order to lower his teaching load. . . . He didn’t want to teach both electromagnetism and gravity the following semester so he created Kaluza-Klein theory.

**² **

The reason Klein usually shares credit, even though his was a rediscovery,

is that he put his own stamp on the concept. After Klein returned to Europe, he showed physicist Wolfgang Pauli his work. Pauli informed him about Kaluza’s paper. Klein was devastated at first. After recovered from the shock, he decided to publish his work anyway, emphasizing a novel interpretation of the fifth dimension within the context of quantum theory. In Klein’s version, the fifth dimension is wrapped in a tight loop, like a thread around a tiny spool. Its length depends on several constants of nature, including the charge of the electron, the speed of light, the gravitational constant, and Planck’s constant (that sets the scale for quantum phenomena). Calculating the value of this length, Klein found it to be an exceedingly small number, beyond the limits of measurability. In this manner, he found a way of physically describing the fifth dimension and justifying the fact that it has never been detected. Hence, higher-dimensional unification of forces has come to be known as Kaluza-Klein theory.

Considering its importance, one would think that the proposers of the theory would have spent their careers trumpeting it. Not so. Ironically, after his one short paper, Kaluza published no other writings on the subject. Klein wrote several papers, then had a change of heart in which he, along with Pauli, drank to the death of his own idea. Advances in quantum theory had convinced him, for the time being, that the fifth dimension was no longer necessary. Much later, Klein found renewed interest in five-dimensional theory, returning to the subject several other times in his career with a variety of novel interpretations. However, he was much better known, at least in his lifetime, for his other contributions to physics. Sadly, Klein died shortly before his theory experienced a great revival in the late 1970s and 1980s.

In recent decades, historians of science have come to realize that, as in the discovery of the New World, there was a Leif Eriksson

who crossed the waters before the more famous voyages. Kaluza and Klein, as it turns out, weren’t exactly the first to set foot on the shores of higher dimensions. Gunnar Nordström, a Finnish physicist, had planted his flag there several years before them. His contribution was virtually lost to history before it was excavated in the 1980s. Why isn’t it called the Nordström miracle?

Perhaps for the same reason that Columbus got all the press. While Nordström’s achievement was a lone and tenuous settlement, built on shaky ground (he based it on a flawed theory of gravity), the theory put forward by Kaluza and then honed by Klein inspired many others to follow. These included prominent physicists such as Einstein. Einstein spent the latter part of his career investigating various unified field theories, including five-dimensional approaches.

Yet even the great Einstein went back and forth over whether he believed in extra dimensions, and, if they existed, what they could possibly look like. Contrary to popular myth, Einstein was not the resolute thinker who created ironclad theories every time he put his thoughts to paper. His working career was full of many aborted attempts, astonishingly sudden changes of heart, and curious episodes when he would say one thing, then do something completely different, as scientific historians Abraham Pais and John Stachel have aptly pointed out. Einstein’s genius lay in his unique perspective and stubborn persistence as much as in the quality of his published writings, especially in his later years.

Einstein approached the idea of the fifth dimension like a dieter with a sweet tooth. At first, when Kaluza sent him his original paper, Einstein found it luscious and enticing. Then, realizing the extra metaphysical poundage it would add to general relativity, he politely resisted for a time. Throughout the 1920s, he nibbled a bit on some of the theory’s premises, but refused to devour its conclusions. Instead, he mainly feasted on other unified approaches—ones that contained space, time, and nothing beyond. In the early 1930s, along with his assistant Walther Mayer, he developed a kind of dietetic version of Kaluza-Klein, one that made use of its tasty benefits without explicitly adding the weight of extra dimensions. Only in the late 1930s did Einstein become a Kaluza-Klein gourmet, fully savoring its delicious concoction. Until, that is, the 1940s, when he finally abandoned it like an overstuffed diner.

*In this 1930 cartoon by Clifford Berryman, Einstein tells Congress, I’ll stick to relativity and the fourth dimension! *

Einstein’s discomfort with the idea of unseen extra dimensions is quite understandable, given his predilection toward tangible, testable descriptions of nature. He shared with most of his scientific contemporaries a disdain for the occult, and had to grapple with the fact that much of the public in his day associated higher dimensions with the world of the spirit. After all the progress made by the tried and true scientific method, postulating dimensions that couldn’t directly be measured seemed a step backward. Nevertheless, at various times in his career, he was willing to set aside his aversion to the notion of imperceptible realms in hopes of fulfilling his dream of unification.

This is the story of Kaluza, Klein, Einstein, and many others as they grappled with the promising but unsettling implications of establishing nature’s unity through higher dimensions. It is a chronicle that began in the first decades of the twentieth century, in an age in which quantum physics and relativity were still in their infancy. In that revolutionary era, as sacred walls crumbled, almost anything seemed possible—including, for some thinkers, domains beyond the limits of space and time. It is a tale that has grown even more poignant in recent years with the formulation of novel models of unification—beginning with supergravity and superstrings, and leading, most recently, to M-theory and brane worlds. These imagine not just five dimensions, but ten or eleven—extending Kaluza-Klein theory to extraordinary new realms.

Some of the latest approaches offer the tantalizing possibility of physically detecting extra dimensions. Testing Kaluza and Klein’s miraculous hypothesis has become an exciting new avenue of experimental physics. Soon we may know if there is more to the world of dimensions than meets the eye.

*O WRETCHED race of men, to space confined! *

*What honour can ye pay to him, whose mind *

*To that which lies beyond hath penetrated? *

*The symbols he hath formed shall sound his praise*,

*And lead him on through unimagined ways *

*To conquests new, in worlds not yet created . . . *

*March on, symbolic host! with step sublime*,

*Up to the flaming bounds of Space and Time! *

*There pause, until by Dickenson depicted*,

*In two dimensions, we the form may trace *

*Of him whose soul, too large for vulgar space*,

*In n dimensions flourished unrestricted*.

—JAMES CLERK MAXWELL to the Committee

of the Cayley Portrait Fund, 1887

Is the cosmos just a shadow play? Such is its portrayal in the sacred Indonesian tradition of *Wayang Kulit*. Part religious ritual, part entertainment, *Wayang Kulit *is a type of puppet theater acted behind a backlit screen. One of the oldest storytelling traditions in the world, its nightlong dramas depict the endless struggles of gods and demons as they set the course of cosmic history.

A typical show begins with the audience seated in front of a stretched white sheet. An oil lamp bathes the screen in an otherworldly glow. The Dalang, or puppeteer, takes his place behind the screen and chooses from among two sets of colorful handcrafted leather puppets. One set represents the heroic characters, the other the villains. Behind the Dalang are musicians, whose surreal cadences lend aural texture to the tales. During the course of the performance, the Dalang never addresses the musicians; rather, they shape their sounds around the ever-changing moods of the stories. As they play on, the Dalang conjures up the memories of generations of storytellers and delivers his one-man epic. From nightfall until the first stretches of the Sun’s awakening rays, the consummate puppeteer never takes a break. With his well-practiced repertoire of voices and movements, he evokes the bravery of legendary warriors as they grapple with horrific ten-headed monsters, relays the blood feuds of times untold, and sketches the tales of impassioned lovers as they woo and betray each other.

With all eyes gazing intently at the screen, the audience sees only projected images of the backstage drama. Passing through each other, blinking out and then suddenly reappearing, these shadows are able to act in a manner impossible for more solid figures. The specter of a gorgon might easily and instantly devour the projection of a sword-wielding lad, with nary a bulge or burp. Two other creatures might merge their shadows and form a ghastly behemoth. Well aware of the varied laws of the two kingdoms—the colorful one behind the sheet and the murky one on its surface—the Dalang extracts whatever magic he can from the difference.

Strange as it would seem, this exotic fiction could represent the truth—in artifice rather than content. A new movement in physics imagines the universe itself as a shadow theater. The world we see around us, according to this novel vision, is but a mere projection of a more fundamental reality. The true drama takes place beyond the curtain on a higher-dimensional stage. Possessing at least one extra dimension beyond space and and time, this backstage area, called the bulk, can never be seen (with visual means at least) because it admits no light. We can only witness the shadow play on the curtain itself, a three-dimensional volume called the brane, and surmise what lies beyond.

Nevertheless, researchers are trying to test this new model of physics, known as M-theory. Their strategies make use of experiments that rely on gravity rather than light. Like the Dalang and his musicians, gravity is thought to have special access to backstage. According to M-theory, it can penetrate the bulk, and emerge in other places along the brane. If this indeed is the case, then gravity could conceivably jump from one region to another at a rate faster than the speed of light. Physicists are currently using accelerator data and other means in attempts to substantiate such a hypothesis. They are also examining alternative higher-dimensional models of the universe, in various versions of Kaluza-Klein theory.

Although M-theory has been around for only about a decade, and more basic Kaluza-Klein theory for less than a century, the notion that the visible world represents mere shadows of the truth is quite ancient. Philosophers have long been intrigued by Plato’s idea of forms.

All we see around us, according to the Greek sage, is just an illusion—an incomplete projection of the perfect domain of forms. These forms constitute the ideal versions of everything we know: the perfect Sun, the perfect Moon, the flawless human being, refreshingly pure air and water, and so on.

Plato encapsulated his thoughts on this subject in his famous Allegory of the Cave.

He imagined prisoners constrained to spend their entire lives inside a cave, close to the entrance. Shackles restricted their motions so they could gaze only at a stony wall. From their vantage point, however, they could observe the interplay of shadows from the outside world, cast by a fire blazing outside in the distance. As people carrying all sorts of goods and vessels walked between the fire and the mouth of the cave, the prisoners saw only their silhouettes. Because the captives were unfamiliar with external reality, they presumed that the flat shadows, not the solid bodies, were all that there was.

Viewed in the modern context, Plato’s cave allegory seems to imply that our three-dimensional world is but a projection of an even higher-dimensional reality as well. Clearly, though, that wasn’t Plato’s intention. The ancient Greeks had no known interest in higher dimensions. Plato set his perfect realm in a metaphysical domain, not in a multidimensional extension of our own space. Thus his tale was explicitedly a metaphor for unseen perfection, not for unseen dimensions.

On the contrary, the Greeks saw reason to believe that nature was limited to only three dimensions: length, width, and height. Plato’s student Aristotle, born in 384 B.C., emphasized this fact in his work On the Heavens.

Recognizing the natural progression from a line to a plane and then to a solid, Aristotle stressed that nothing of higher dimension lies beyond. He considered the solid to be the most complete type of mathematical object, unable to be augmented or improved. Therefore, no other body could surpass it in number of dimensions. To further bolster his case, he pointed out the Pythagorean idea that three was a special number, because everything has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The Pythagoreans were a learned society in ancient Greece that had a great interest in the power of mathematics and the mystical properties of various numbers. Hundreds of years later, a treatise by Ptolemy entitled *On Dimensionality *amplified Aristotle’s thesis. In it Ptolemy showed that one couldn’t construct a set of more than three mutually perpendicular lines passing through a single point.

Due perhaps to the hallowed Pythagorean tradition, as further developed by Plato, Aristotle, and others, Greek society maintained a keen fascination with three-dimensional geometry. This extended to its art and architecture, from precisely proportioned sculpture to the grand symmetrical structures of the Parthenon. In mathematics, the Greeks were the first to discover that there are only five regular (equal-sided) three-dimensional polyhedra, known as the Platonic solids. These are the tetrahedron (four-sided pyramid), the cube, the octahedron (eight sides), the dodecahedron (twelve sides), and the icosahedron (twenty sides). This limitation seemed quite mysterious, given that there are an infinite number of regular two-dimensional polygons (triangles, squares, and so forth). Such striking differences between two and three dimensions made the latter seem even holier.

From such rudimentary seeds, Euclid made beautiful structures bloom. He used his postulates to prove virtually all of the basic geometric properties known at the time. Many of those results are familiar to every high school student. For example, if two triangles have exactly the same shape, the sides of one must be proportional to the sides of the other. With an argument based on angles, Euclid also explained why there are only five Platonic solids.

The postulates upon which Euclid based his proofs were so compelling they were considered sacrosanct until the nineteenth century. With the first four, it’s clear why. Every set of two points defines a straight line, he noted. A line segment can be extended forever. A circle can be drawn with any given center and radius. All right angles are equal to each other. Who, familiar with simple plane geometry, could argue with these?

Euclid’s fifth postulate is markedly more complex than the other four. Consider two straight lines, and a third line crossing them. This creates two intersections. Suppose the angles on one side of both intersections are each less than right angles. Then that is the side where the first two lines eventually meet.

Because of its bearing on the subject of parallel lines, the fifth postulate has come to be known as the parallel postulate. Mathematically it is equivalent to the following alternative statement, called Playfair’s axiom: given a line and a single point not on it, there is precisely one line parallel to the first through that point. When expressed in this manner, one can readily see how the parallel postulate serves as a duplicating machine

for producing parallel lines throughout all of space. If one wants to construct a set of parallel lines, just take one line and choose a point that happens to be somewhere else. The point automatically acts as the basis for a parallel line.

Given the relative elaborateness of the parallel postulate, for generations mathematicians wondered if it could be derived from the other four postulates. In that case it would be a secondary proposition instead of a basic assumption. Euclid himself considered it inferior to his other postulates and, in his proofs, avoided using it as much as he could. Various mathematicians’ attempts to dethrone the fifth postulate all failed, however. It wasn’t until the early nineteenth century, and the discovery of non-Euclidean geometries, that Gauss, Bolyai, and Lobachevsky demonstrated that the parallel postulate was wholly independent of the others, and could in fact be replaced with other assumptions.

Until then, Euclid’s *Elements *reigned supreme in the field of geometry. It is a record thus far unsurpassed by any other scientific work, and a tribute to the magnificence of Greek thinking on the subject.

When Rome conquered Greece, it acquired a cargo of natural and philosophical knowledge, which it unpacked and wore with great enthusiasm. Though the Romans had many erudite thinkers, much of their scholarship came secondhand. They had little interest in developing their own theories. Still the older ideas were none the worse for wear, and helped them construct magnificent temples, statuary, and other public works, with designs derived from Greek mathematical principles.

The rise of Christianity and the fall of Rome led to a radical change of attitude in Europe toward science and culture. The extravagance of Greco-Roman art and architecture became replaced by austerity and uniformity. Thoughts turned to preparations for the world to come, rather than ways to understand the world that is.

Throughout the Middle Ages, a period dating roughly from the fifth until the fourteenth centuries, an emphasis on unadorned design resulted in a two-dimensional approach to painting. Portraits from that era appear flat and unrealistic, like paper dolls. The notion of depth was almost forgotten, as painters reproduced staid likenesses of Jesus, Mary, the Apostles, and other New Testament figures.

Then in the Renaissance era, the sleeping giant of creative art arose from its slumber. Rubbing its eyes, it gazed at the world anew. It began to scrutinize the precise details of the way nature appears, capturing those impressions in increasingly realistic depictions.

One of the harbingers of the new movement was the early fourteenth-century Florentine artist Giotto di Bondone. When Giotto painted scenes, he imagined them from the point of view of someone standing a certain distance away. Then he sketched the images with those lines of sight in mind. The result was sharply different from the flat paintings of his predecessors, far more vivid and true to form.

With his discovery of perspective, Giotto brought the third dimension back into art. Onlookers stood entranced when looking at Giotto’s paintings, like children watching television for the first time. They marveled at his ability to make them feel as if they were actually at the scenes he rendered. Soon other artists began to imitate his style, hoping to create some of their own striking images.

To improve upon the illusion of three-dimensionality, artists began to study the long-ignored field of Euclidean geometry. They also began to realize that the proper placement of light and shadows would enhance the realism of their portrayals. Thus, the best artists also became naturalists and mathematicians, calculating the best color and placement for every aspect of their works.

Perhaps the quintessential Renaissance artist was Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo, who worked in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, was determined to render his portraits as lifelike as possible. To turn his canvas into a mirror of nature, he studied mathematics, mechanics, optics, anatomy, and other scientific subjects, exploring them in groundbreaking ways. His notebooks contain some of the most detailed studies of human and animal forms ever rendered, indicating the precise exertions of various muscles in a variety of movements. These sketches helped him create realistic portrayals of his subjects that almost seem to be gazing, or even smiling (in his best-known masterpiece), back at the beholder.

Leonardo was very interested in the subtle dance of light and shadow that the Sun’s rays produce on a subject. He noticed that lighter and darker areas can be used to convey a sense of either proximity or remoteness. By mixing his colors with appropriately sunny or dusky shades, he found he could enhance the three-dimensionality of his works.

Corresponding to the development of depth in painting came a revived interest in sculpture. Even more so than its Greek and Roman antecedents, Renaissance sculpture captured the flesh and blood humanity of

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